In the breaking days of December the church honors a Saint who found himself in a church at a breaking point: St. John of Damascus, Hymnwriter and Priest.
Born in 675, St. John was born into a wealthy family and was elevated to a political position of prominence at quite a young age when he succeeded his father as an official in the Court of the Caliph of Damascus.
He felt a call to the faith, and became a monk at the monastery of Mar Saba (still in existence!), a hermit colony founded in the year 484. It was there that he gave up his position in the Caliphate Court and devoted himself to simplicity, the study of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and the priesthood. He was ordained in 725.
It was about this time that the church began to crumble under the weight of melding practices. The Eastern and Western churches were evolving drastically different approaches to faith and life. It would take another 300 years for the split to become official, but it is here in history that we can see the fault lines.
In these days the Byzantine emperor Leo III forbade the veneration of sacred images and icons, and ordered their destruction. St. John of Damascus wrote vehemently that icons and sacred images were portals and glimpses of the Divine, not Divine themselves, and should be saved and maintained. As part of his logic, he successfully defended the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as well, against those who would dismiss it.
St. John of Damascus wrote great mystical treatises on theology, too, that are still foundational for the Orthodox community.
For all of the above, St. John of Damascus is considered by the Eastern Church as the last of its Fathers.
We still sing the writings of St. John, by the way. That wonderful Easter hymn sung every year that goes, “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness!” came from his golden pen. He authored a number of Easter hymns that still sing out the faith to this day every Spring.
St. John of Damascus died near Jerusalem around 760. He is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that icons and objects can be glimpses of Divine presence in this world, and we need not take everything at face value.
Indeed, nothing is “face value” when it comes to the Divine. God is always more than they appear…and godly things can be, too.
-historical notes from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations